The Bellingham Human Rights Film Festival will be bringing 14 eyeopening films to the local community starting this Thursday through March 1. The festival focuses on bridging the gap between global human rights violations and local activism and involvement, said festival committee member and Fairhaven College lecturer Shirley Osterhaus.

The event will kickoff at the Pickford Theater with two showings of “War Dance” at 7 and 9:30 p.m. This film documents the lives of three Ugandan children who have each have evaded the violence of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army and are now participating in a musical competition. The remaining films will show each day at the Fairhaven College Auditorium at 7 p.m. with four matinees on the last day.

“For me it's about engaging, educating and empowering people,” film committee member and AmeriCorp worker Willow Rudiger said.

The Whatcom Film Association, the same group that runs the Pickford Theater, started the festival eight years ago, Osterhaus said. After the first year the festival gained more community involvement and now exists as a loosely structured group of volunteers from the local community, with close ties to the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, Rudiger said.

This group is open to all interested members of the community, Rudiger said. This year the group started meeting officially in October to discuss how they would select the films. They then compiled a list of around 120 films which they found by researching previous film festivals, specific topics of interest, award winning films, as well as contacting distributors. They narrowed that list to 60 films which they viewed and then made their final selections by the end of December, Rudiger said.

Osterhaus said that they do not pick a specific theme for the festival as human rights issues tend to overlap. Instead the committee prefers to choose films that cover a wide swath of topics from all over the world, which this year will range from issues of war to those of the media, and chronicles of refugees to accounts of modern slavery.

Rudiger said that this year the committee looked for films that presented issues currently being left out of mainstream media. More specifically they selected those that documented first person narratives of those people facing human rights violations to promote empowerment of traditionally oppressed voices. Rudiger spoke of one such film that puts a face on women fighting in war entitled “My Daughter the Terrorist.” This film is made by a woman director and documents the lives of two women from Sri Lanka who have dedicated their lives to fight for an extremist group.

While the committee wants people to attend and enjoy the films, the festival's main goal is to generate local activism, Rudiger said. A different community group will attend each showing, briefly introducing themselves before the film and providing more information about their organization and how attendees can become involved afterward.

Marie Marchand, executive director of the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center said her organization will be at the viewing of “Soldiers of Conscience.” They work in the local community helping local citizens resist the Iraq War by providing young people with alternatives to military service, lobbying against the war, and supporting conscientious objectors and veterans, Marchand said. Evan Knapenberger, who served in Iraq from 2005-2006 as an intelligence specialist, will be leading the discussion at the end of the film, she said.

“Community organizations find that it is a good venue for increasing their visibility and gaining new volunteers and members,” Rudiger said.

Osterhaus explained that this year's festival is attempting to provide even more opportunities for engagement. Fairhaven students currently in human rights classes are required to create pamphlets for each film, providing relevant information, Web sites and other Web links so that attendees can get more information as needed.

Rudiger said that despite their small budget of around $1,000 they are able to bring so many movies to the community due to the fact that the festival is completely free, with only the goal of informing its viewers. Most of the filmmakers and distributers are willing to dramatically cut the costs of the films. This year the most expensive film was only $200, Osterhaus said.

Osterhaus said that the festival wasn't able to get any local or regional films as the ones they were interested in wouldn't have been ready by February. She says that she was happy the festival will be showing “Occupation 101,” an award winning film that documents the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and “A Little Bit of So Much Truth,” which documents the non-violent uprising of the blue collar citizens of Oaxaca, Mexico and their attempts to create their own media outlet.